MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
We're getting a closer look at one of the largest environmental settlements in New Jersey history. Today, state officials released the details of the proposed $225 million settlement with ExxonMobil. Environmentalists complain the company is getting off easy after polluting wetlands for several decades. As NPR's Joel Rose reports, the settlement focuses on two of Exxon's former refineries in northern New Jersey.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Here's how Jon Stewart described those refineries recently on "The Daily Show."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")
JON STEWART: Many of you have probably driven by and thought, did Satan's skunk get diarrhea?
ROSE: There's no question that the refineries were extensively polluting for close to a century. Exxon agreed to a state-supervised cleanup back in the 1990s, but in 2004, New Jersey filed another lawsuit, eventually seeking $9 billion in damages. Exxon dug in its heels and fought back for a decade until the two sides agreed to a settlement of 225 million.
BOB CONSIDINE: What we're looking at is a huge settlement - a huge commitment from ExxonMobil to clean up these sites to state standards.
ROSE: Bob Considine is a spokesman for the state's Department of Environmental Protection, which released the terms of the settlement today. Exxon declined to comment, but environmentalists made no secret of their disappointment. Jeff Tittel directs the New Jersey Sierra Club.
JEFF TITTEL: We think it's the biggest sellout in history.
ROSE: Tittel says the settlement is even worse than he feared because it covers more than a dozen additional sites in the state that need to be cleaned up.
TITTEL: If you added all the other sites, this could have been at least a 10, if not a $15 billion court case.
ROSE: Tittel says New Jersey's case seemed to be going well with a judge set to rule this year. But DEP spokesman Bob Considine says the state was worried about coming away with nothing.
CONSIDINE: The burden of proof is on us to show resource damages, and it's complicated to do. It's not as easy as people make it out to be.
ROSE: But that didn't stop state officials from aiming high when they filed the case a decade ago. Attorney Steve Picco represents oil and chemical companies for the firm Saul Ewing. He says New Jersey was never going to collect $9 billion in damages.
STEVE PICCO: They're a victim of their own hyperbole. Had they not claimed this was a billion-dollar lawsuit, I think everybody would have been happy.
ROSE: Picco says state officials have never written detailed regulations for how to assess natural resource damages, a point some environmentalists concede has hurt the state in court and in settlement negotiations. Bill Wolfe heads the New Jersey chapter of Public Employees For Environmental Responsibility.
BILL WOLFE: The polluter knows he's got to pay something, but they know that push comes to shove, they have a good likelihood of winning in court. So they've got a stronger hand than the state. And that negotiation results in the three-cents-on-the-dollar type of settlements we've seen in the Exxon deal.
ROSE: That deal still requires approval from a judge, but first, the public has a chance to comment over the next 60 days, and opponents of the settlement say they'll try to challenge it in court. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.